I believe because it is absurd. This famous line is attributable to Tertullian and rhetorically appeals to the Aristotelian argument that if something is continuously reiterated as fact, but it is absurd, it is probably true because no person would be willing to state such an absurd thing. It is often counterposed with the necessity of reason as the foundation of belief. For example, religions can be dangerous because they require their adherents to believe absurd facts and to restate them as true. I would like to take a different approach to this paradox of Faith and Reason.
Reason and the principles of logic are self-affirming, but we ultimately cannot prove them; they just are. You cannot prove first principles, you just have to embrace them. This can lead to a teleological question: why these first principles and not others? Why do we not live in a world where the law of noncontradiction is breakable, where the law of the excluded middle is disregardable, and the law of identity is nonexistent? Why these laws and not others? They just seem to be; we confidently accept them as they are.
Here’s the contradiction: the principles are faithfully believed to work. The world seems to operate this way, the way we act proceeding from them appears to be effective, thus, it is likely that they are true. Yet, we cannot say with certainty that they are true. We faithfully act as if they are true because they work.
As anyone’s line of logic becomes more complex, it is more likely that logical contradictions will present themselves. As we proceed through life, we may ardently adhere to a particular fact and then, several years later, find we ardently accept a new fact, one which happens to be the polar opposite of the prior fact. This suggests an issue of identity. Who are you, exactly? Are you who you say you are? What are you if you can violate the law of identity so easily? More importantly, how are you able to violate the law of identity so easily if it is some fixed rule?
Even if we haven’t undergone such a tortuous reformation of our identity, we hold beliefs that plainly contradict each other. The scientific materialist, if he takes his logic to its fatal conclusion, likely considers himself to be a determinist. Still, if a person improperly acts against him, he will seek justice. If our actions are deterministic, how is it that he can logically seek justice if justice implies the possibility of agency? If our actions are deterministic, then the actor wasn’t responsible, he was simply doing what he was going to do anyway. You could make the same claim for the aggrieved determinist; his anger at the purported injustice is an automatic response to a stimulus that was bound to occur, thus, his response was bound to occur. Then why even hold onto the idea of choice? If there was no choice in the matter, no blame can be assigned; the materialist is acting absurdly and the criminal has done nothing wrong. Rightness or wrongness can only be assigned to a responsible agent, and there’s nothing like a responsible agent if all matters are determined.
What I am getting at is that we are living within paradigms that contradict each other. How do we resolve these? Synthesis? Working through the problem as if the contradictions are resolvable? But there’s no certainty that the contradictions are resolvable, so if you were to work through the problems as if they were, you would be acting on faith. You would have to embrace the absurdity of the contradictions to work yourself out of them. Fundamentally, life is absurd and rife with contradictions.
On Monday, the Sixth of March, 2023, I wrote that most narratives are not actionable, and I stand by that; the stories of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings are not livable stories; just try casting wingardium leviosa or, in the case of Star Wars, using the force. However, it is highly likely that there are insights to be gleaned from them. As hypotheticals, narratives help us to think through potential scenarios before we actually act them out.
I recently watched a good portion of the Harry Potter films, and I came to a startling realization: the wizarding world is utterly absurd. Of this quality, the world and its characters seem to be aware. In fact, I would go so far as to say they embrace the absurdity. From this absurdity, there seems to be a duality.
On one side of the absurd life, there are those who embrace it with love, friendship, bravery, and compassion; on the other, there are those who become cruel, callous, violent, and megalomaniacal. The divide between the two also appears to be a quality of their circumstances. Tom Riddle, an abandoned orphan, becomes the terrible Lord Voldemort. In his youth, he bears the signs of a child with anti-social personality disorder; he steals, harms his peers, and lies about doing so without remorse. Harry Potter, though his parents were murdered, is raised by the abusive Dursleys but his playfulness remains. His family’s savings insulate him from poverty and provide him the means to purchase his school supplies, he’s helped along by his teachers, and he bravely stands up for his friends and peers – he wishes the best for them; he doesn’t seek to control them.
Throughout the films, this qualitative dichotomy between light and dark magic is exemplified, but what it hints at is the dichotomy between the two routes of the absurd life. On the one hand, you can playfully explore your environment, grasping the affordances before you to generate creative solutions to rather grievous problems. On the other, you can engage with the world as if it’s an object to be subsumed by your will and your will alone; instead of overcoming your problems, you obliterate them. You can remove power from your enemy or you can steal his soul.
In the story of Harry Potter, eventually, these two sides meet. Voldemort returns and utterly terrorizes the wizarding world – the world of the playfully absurd. When this occurs, the light side of magic is tested. Why shouldn’t it do what is unforgivable? When your enemy is capable of using a more powerful weapon against you, inspiring a fear in you that you are not willing to bring about in them, do they not have the upper hand? For the cruel absurdists, the power of death, to destroy your enemies, is their mechanism of control. For the playful absurdists, what they need to do, as is clear from the Deathly Hallows, is to overcome that which they fear. When death itself is made a vehicle for creation, an affordance to generate creative solutions to the problems of existence, the two are synthesized.
The cruel absurdists seem to fear this. Generally, they live really ghastly lives. If they were to die, it would highlight how pointless their suffering was. And even if they were to live as ghosts, they must bear their suffering for all time. So, they take their suffering out on others. When the playful absurdists embrace death, when they use their deaths as a tool of creation, they mock the cruel absurdists or dark wizards. Plainly speaking, they give meaning to death, which the cruel absurdists regard as meaningless or as a mere means to an end. This neuters the power of the cruel absurdists; they can no longer use death to terrorize and control their enemies, for their authority is predicated on the application of cruelty and death to inspire fear.
What I’m trying to get at is that this synthesizing function of the playful absurdists is predicated on the world being impossible or absurd a priori. In the world of Harry Potter, impossible things can happen like life overcoming the power of death because life is absurd. Faith can overcome the power of reason because faith is a prerequisite to living in an absurd world. If the world were not absurd, faith could not overcome the power of reason because faith wouldn’t be a prerequisite to living in the world. How it is, and it is required for us to begin unraveling the contradictions in our life.
I think this requires us to reexamine how we are living. The seriousness with which we encounter the world requires it to mock us in return just to re-establish an equilibrium. However, we shouldn’t, like the jackass, ignore the seriousness of the world around us either. In some sense, there has to be a balance between taking the world seriously and being playful. It helps to see the world as a game. We can play the game of life in a variety of ways, create numerous artifacts, induce pain and pleasure, flip the board or iterate upon what’s already there. Yet the question, as Dr. Stuart Brown has explored for some decades now, is why? Really: for its own sake.
Play and living, like dancing, are things to do for their own sake. We can give play a telos, and we can even recognize play as serious, but when we do the former, we eradicate its capacity to generate variation; we kill creativity. The tendency to play, as Huzinga notes in his book Homo Ludens, is a perennial human universal. However, when play becomes too serious, for instance in potlach games, it becomes needlessly destructive. Play also seems to be correlated to the development of the brain and solving complex problems, but this doesn’t make it necessary to live. There is a joy to be had in play, in living absurdly and not taking life too seriously because it reflects the good life. The good life comes from play and play preserves the good life. It is a kind of dance that we should do for its own sake, not because it allows us to overcome our enemies, to obliterate our problems, but because it is good. Really, what does it suggest about our existence that all complex, anthropogenic things around us are rooted in a bunch of Australopithecines or Habilines messing around in the African Rainforests or Savannahs?
I do not just believe because life is absurd, I am because life is absurd.